A Beijing court reportedly handed down a suspended death sentence to Yang Hengjun, a Chinese-Australian author, on Monday, after more than five years of detention on suspicion of espionage without a trial. Yang, a pro-democracy blogger and Australian citizen of Chinese descent, was working in New York before his arrest at Guangzhou airport in 2019. The charges against him involve espionage on behalf of an undisclosed nation, with China not revealing specific details of the case.
According to Sydney University of Technology professor Feng Chongyi, a colleague of Yang, the Chinese court sentenced him to a suspended death sentence that would convert to life imprisonment after two years. Yang has consistently denied the charges. Feng described the case as a “serious injustice,” attributing Yang’s punishment to his criticism of human rights abuses in China and his advocacy for universal values such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong expressed deep concern over the court’s decision, stating that Australia is “appalled” and has called in China’s ambassador. Wong acknowledged that the sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment after two years if Yang does not commit any serious crimes during that period. She emphasized Australia’s commitment to advocating for Yang’s interests, acknowledging the distressing impact on Yang, his family, and all supporters.
In a separate statement, a family spokesman in Sydney noted that Yang’s family was “shocked and devastated by this news, which comes at the extreme end of worst expectations,” according to Reuters.
Born in 1965 in Hubei Province, China, Yang initially worked for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs before moving to Australia and becoming a citizen in 2002. Later residing in the United States, he transitioned into a spy novelist, political commentator, and activist advocating for democratization in China.
The news follows the release of Australian journalist Cheng Lei last year after three years of imprisonment. Despite hopes for Yang’s release, China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, indicated that Yang’s case could not be resolved in the same manner as Cheng’s.